Sketch by Jack Chalker

Reflections

There are many people no doubt who sit back from time to time and reflect upon their life and I am no exception. My early life, particularly up to leaving school at the age of fourteen was rather deprived, yet I have some very fond memories of my childhood. Along with three other brothers I was brought up in a very loving relationship by a mother whom I admired and loved immeasurably. As a single parent she battled virtually alone, almost slaved to raise four sons from a very early age, shaping and guiding each through their formative years. She epitomised all the qualities necessary to survive a hard and often traumatic life until a late age. A final exemplary act of her tremendous courage and fighting spirit arose when she was aged eighty-nine. It took four operations to amputate successfully both her legs and beyond all expectation, she lived for a further three years. 

My elder brother Leslie, her firstborn, was thirteen months my senior and we shared all but the last few months of his comparatively short life. In February 1942 we became prisoners of war of the Japanese but unfortunately were separated soon after. He became part of the advance party to Thailand to begin work on the now notorious 'railway of death'.  He was in the base camp at Non Pladuk, Thailand when he contracted diphtheria, and deprived of medical aid had little chance of survival and died on the 28 August 1942 aged 22.

It was in the early months of 1939 that he and I volunteered to join the Territorial Army. We choose to enlist in the Royal Engineers and became Sappers in the 288 Field Company, a locally formed unit in Norwich. At the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 we were immediately mobilised and pitched unceremoniously into a different way of life. Personally, the simple act of donning a uniform induced immense pride and inspired patriotism. One new experience following another had all the hallmarks of adventure and excitement with fear, the more natural emotion perhaps, deferred to later in my life. Inevitably though, as those years propelled me quite rapidly from youth to manhood, the situation was viewed more rationally and objectively.  Never more so than when the French and British Forces were overran by the might of Germany resulting in the now historic armada of retreat and evacuation of British forces from Dunkirk. Then the mood of excitement and adventure gave way to agitation and anxiety. The threat of an invasion by Germany became almost a reality and as a country, we seemed on the brink of defeat. History records how the tension of that frightening prospect dissipated to bring a measure of normality back into lives miraculously saved from destruction.  Little did I realise that in about eighteen month’s time I would be faced with a similarly devastating situation.

As part of the 18th Division we left England at the end of October 1941, reaching Capetown by early December and it was while there that the Japanese attacked and destroyed the American Fleet at Pearl Harbour. This action incited both America and Britain to simultaneously declare war upon Japan, posing an immediate threat to the many held territories in the Far East and a change in our fortunes. Upon leaving Capetown we were diverted from the Middle East, our original destination, and sent to defend and hold the far-flung outpost of Singapore. We arrived at the end of January 1942 and by that time the Japanese having invaded Malaya some six weeks earlier, were almost there too.  History will record the island was lost before we (the 18th Division) had set feet upon its soil. Inevitably, Singapore surrendered to the Japanese on 15 February 1942 and my brother and I became prisoners of war.  The entire campaign remains indelible in the annals of military history as possibly Britain’s greatest disaster.

One month later in dire circumstances I had my twenty-first birthday. It engraves my memory as the last time I spoke with my brother Leslie, for we were suddenly, almost brutally separated the next day. The following three and a half years were ones of extreme deprivation and trauma, particularly the two and a half years I spent in Taiwan (known then as Formosa and Japanese territory at the time). Akin to slavery, for almost 2 years I worked deep in the bowels of the earth in a copper mine at a place called  'Kinkaseki' on the North East coast of the island.  Beaten brutally almost daily by sadistic Japanese supervisors, the mine was a veritable 'hell-hole'.  Conditions in the camp were not a whole lot better. A mainly rice diet of starvation proportions ultimately reduced my weight from a normal 154 to 86 pounds and disease was rife. Death became almost the stark expectation of each day; brushed by many, flirted with by some, it came mercifully for others.  I was twenty-four and a half years old when the war and my captivity came to an end, miraculously surviving to savour the ultimate in the emotions of relief and joy. However, the inevitable reaction to the horrendous experiences of those years set in soon after returning home and I faced a long, difficult period of rehabilitation with the tears and nightmares taking a long time to relent.

There were of course lessons to be learned from my experiences of those years but it was perhaps because of being so hard learned why they went unheeded. From the very outset of returning home I was emotionally unstable, very confused and certainly found settling down difficult.  I was in no mood to take life seriously and it led me to be irrational and lack common sense.  I firmly believed, as nothing was ever likely to be as bad for me again, I had won all of life's battles. I failed to comprehend that problems were bound to arise that needed to be faced and overcome and would require the same effort and determination of recent years.  The mistakes made in those early years, in some respects led to irretrievable consequences. The inevitable regrets carry the guilt of whether I deserved to survive and have made the best use of what has come to be regarded as 'bonus years'.

The year 1995 was not only the 50th anniversary of the ending of the Second World War but also the number of those 'bonus years' it was my privilege to have had. The commemorations were a timely reminder for me to pause and reflect upon all aspects of my good fortune at surviving such horrendous times.  Many events of course, stirred the emotions and hundreds of words were written with the Fepow fraternity singled out to face the eternal questions about forgiving and forgetting and reconciliation?  I had by that time made friends with a Japanese lady, Keiko Holmes, the widow of an Englishman and of a younger generation.  From the very outset I admired her courage immensely and was deeply touched by her sincerity and understanding.

I have reached an age to comfortably hold the view that the world is no longer of my generation but belong to another, my children’s and grandchildren's.  If there are no repeat performances of the years 1942-45, it really ought not to be a problem for future generations of both countries to be truly reconciled.  It is a view that I never thought possible to hold at one time.  During my time as a prisoner of war and for quite a few years after I bitterly hated the Japanese but as time passed I learned that such hate was counter-productive. In consequence I deliberated long and hard and eventually I no longer as I once did, ‘tar all Japanese with the same brush’ nor subscribed to the popular view once held, ‘that the only good Japanese was a dead one'. I have really come a long way since those days and certainly bear no ill will toward the younger generation of Japanese.  I hope however, it can be understood why I am not unreservedly endeared toward the male Japanese of my generation.  In particular I hope my friend Keiko Holmes understands, and that I do not offend as I continue to decline her courteous invitation to visit Japan.  As I was never held captive in Japan it follows that as a country it holds no memories for me of any kind.

For many years now, unlike most Fepows I have given thought to what my dear brother Leslie would have wished of me in his name.  I truly feel he would not have wanted me to continue a vendetta of hate forever and as I still survive, perhaps after all these years I ought not to find it too difficult to forgive those for what they did to me. However, I find it really hard to forgive those responsible for the inhumanity that deprived my mother of her son and me of a brother. Witnessing for years as I did her grief and sorrow at the loss of her son was terribly heartbreaking. I cannot forget those years nor those in captivity and likely never ever to be wholly free from some measure of resentment against my captors.  Nevertheless because of the efforts made I am now a much more contented person and have acquired a certain peace of mind.

While I have expressed no real desire to visit Japan, I cherished the thought for years that one-day I would return to Taiwan.  As time passed however I gave up on the idea, but then completely out of the blue in the autumn of 1997 the fixation I had about returning was reawakened.  I learned firstly that a memorial had been erected on the former campsite at Kinkaseki and was being unveiled in November 1997. Unfortunately personal circumstances made it impossible for me to attend the ceremony. It was however, a blessing to be put in touch with Michael Hurst, a Canadian living permanently in Taiwan.  A friendship ensued and I learned more about the Kinkaseki memorial. It transpired that Michael Hurst pursued as a hobby, archaeology and military history with World War 11 of special interest. When he became aware of the wartime happenings at the Kinkaseki copper mine Pow camp it very much aroused his interest.  Enlisting the help of others, a committee was formed mainly from the quite diverse English speaking community. With the friendly co-operation of the Taiwanese authorities, they worked tirelessly for the memorial project and it now stands in an area on the former campsite that has been wholly landscaped to form a park. Getting to know all this touched me deeply and when I learned arrangements were in hand to hold a remembrance service at the memorial site in November 1998, the first anniversary of its unveiling, I just knew this was an opportunity I simply could not let pass by.

Inevitably my thoughts went back to the day of my release and of leaving the place that had come to be regarded as 'hell'.  Once aboard a destroyer I remember vividly resting my arms on the ship's rail, standing there as though riveted, while the ropes were cast off and we moved slowly out to sea. Even then I could not bring myself to leave and remained there till the island of Formosa became a speck on the horizon and for the first time in years the tears fell.  It is not easy to describe in words my thoughts and feelings except simply to liken it to an escape from hell. I never thought for one moment that it would only be a matter of years before I had a deep desire to return.  Strangely, for a place that held so many bad memories, it became a country I grew to feel a strong affinity with and particularly at the advent of television, it almost became an obsession. Any news or television programme about Taiwan, no matter how trivial, found me absorbed and avidly interested. And here I was about to return.

So it was that on Wednesday November 11 1998, after a 53 years absence I began the long road back to Taiwan and was met by Michael Hurst upon arriving. The remembrance service at the memorial and former campsite had been arranged for the following Sunday. Quite rightly however, it was felt that I would much prefer to visit the camp at Kinkaseki before the weekend service and went there on the very first day. It was gloriously sunny and warm and to walk around the former campsite felt quite awesome.  Incredibly, one of the original concrete gateposts at the entrance to the camp still existed. As bad as the camp itself was however, the main nightmare was the nearby copper mine where we were worked as slaves in the most appalling conditions. It was these conditions that finally led to its ultimate closure and though now derelict and overgrown the path still existed that led to the mine and its entrance and retracing the steps taken all those years ago was really some experience. However, knowing I was there of my own free will tempered my emotions. On the Sunday, a solitary piper led a large following to the memorial for a very simple but moving service and was my privilege to recite the following lines I had written for the occasion.

 

I have  made this special journey

To stand upon the soil

Where once I was,  so distant now

And made to sweat and toil.

 

The camp I knew has vanished

And I'm thrilled to see in its place

This beautiful park and memorial

Majestic in all its grace.

 

I am here this day to honour those

Of our comrades long since met

Their memory  I will always cherish

And none should ever forget.

Other highlights of my stay in Taiwan were the visits paid to the two other campsites where I was held captive. As it had been at Kinkaseki, returning to them were uncanny experiences. At each place, with much thought and help from Michael Hurst we held a simple but dignified little ceremony to leave poppy crosses, not only to commemorate our visit but also to the memory of our former comrades. There is no doubt that I coped far better than I would have done had I returned years ago.  I am convinced it would have been a far more emotional occasion. On the other hand a visit then would possibly have 'laid to rest a few ghosts' and prevented a few nightmares. The experiences of the entire visit was made more exceptional by the fact that though there had been many changes and developments during the last fifty or more years, many recognisable landmarks remained. Meeting local people too who remembered us Pows being there, even though some of them were only children at the time, was almost unbelievable.  I am personally indebted to Michael Hurst. Once knowing of my dream, his encouragement, enthusiasm and dedication did so much to see that it was fulfilled.

Finally, I recall upon my return home in 1945 and for many years after being asked, "how did you survive"?  There was no simple answer to the question except to confess being very lucky and that it was a miracle.  In recent years I have often wondered whether that reply was too trite and over dramatised.  I even found myself posing the question to myself, "was it really as bad as have often been related?  Having retraced many of the steps I took all those years ago and virtually relived some of the experiences it was unquestionably every bit as bad. Without doubt I was extremely lucky to survive and was indeed a miracle.  In the same way as it is true 'time is a great healer', so it is that 'time fades the memory'. How much worse it would have been if it were not so.

Maurice A Rooney August1999

 

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